Enchanting Kyoto

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Enchanting Kyoto
Kyoto has an air of mystery as it collapses past and present. Slip back in time a thousand years to when old wooden townhouses lined narrow stone lanes and white-faced geisha played shamisen (a traditional musical instrument) for samurai.
By Erin Bogar, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Austin Rea
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    Lesser-Known Temples
    Seek relief from the crowds at Kyoto’s lesser-known temples and tranquil gardens. Off the Path of Philosophy and inside the moss-covered gate of Honen-in temple are secluded forests, raked gardens, and a small storehouse with art exhibits. Manshu-in temple and the nearby Shinsen-do temple are quiet escapes. Shinsen-do has open architecture, tatami mat floors, and a peaceful garden, whereas Manshu-in is a simple structure with a raked garden; both are captivating relics from another time.
    Photo by Austin Rea
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    Hot Springs and Japanese Inns
    Stay in a ryokan (traditional inn) and soak in an onsen (hot spring) for the quintessential Japanese experience. Bathe in superbly crafted cedar tubs and relax in a private garden at Kyoto’s finest ryokan, Tawaraya; alternatively, the intimate Ryokan Ugenta in the sleepy rural village of Kibune has sleek private baths located along the mountainside. Take a boat to the modern ryokan retreat, Hoshinoya, with delectable kaiseki (multi-course Japanese cuisine) and expansive views of lush mountain landscape. Funaoka Onsen, near Daitoku-ji temple, is the oldest public bath house in Kyoto and includes indoor and outdoor baths, saunas, and a cypress soaking tub.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Noh and Kabuki Theater
    Noh and Kabuki theater are ageless performing arts that remain popular throughout Japan. Kyoto’s opulent Minamiza Theatre, located in Gion, is Japan’s oldest Kabuki theater. This dark-wood Momoyama-style structure, with giant red lanterns and colorful Kabuki images lining the exterior, is a regal sight along Shijo Street. The Kaomise festival in December brings together Japan’s top Kabuki performers to celebrate the opening of the new season. Where Kabuki performances are colorful and ornate, Noh is characterized by masked actors and slow-paced elegance. See the haunting Noh masks on display at the Fureaikan (the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts), and attend an hour-long show at Kyoto’s oldest Noh theater, Kanze Kaikan Noh Theater.
    Photo by James Montgomery/age fotostock
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    Unique Kyoto Cuisine
    Many of Kyoto’s most interesting dishes have been refined for hundreds of years. The Zen Buddhist cuisine known as shojin ryori consists of seasonal vegetarian meals created specifically for Buddhist monks and is often served around temples. Sample shojin ryori at Shigetsu inside the Tenryu-ji temple grounds, or while overlooking Daitoku-ji temple’s Daisen-in garden at Izusen. Obanzai ryori (homestyle Kyoto cooking) has recently become popular restaurant fare. Typical obanzai dishes are vegetable croquettes, boiled sea vegetables, boiled eggplant, herring wrapped with sea vegetables, salted mackerel, and tofu. Dine on obanzai ryori at Mamecha, located in the narrow Old World Ishibe-koji alley.
    Photo by Paolo Negri/age fotostock
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    Castles and Palaces of Kyoto
    Kyoto’s castles and palaces survive as symbols of the oldest enduring hereditary monarchy in the world. The Katsura Imperial Villa is classic sukiya-style architecture, marked by refined rustic simplicity and designed to harmonize with the surrounding landscape. Nijo Castle was built by Japan’s renowned Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu to prove his power over the Imperial family. The castle and the accompanying Ninomaru Palace’s painted sliding doors, gold-leaf ceilings, and intricate woodcarvings are examples of Momoyama architecture. The Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s teahouses, winding pathways, and views of Kyoto create an environment of reflection and relaxation. To tour the Imperial properties, apply through the Imperial Household Agency.
    Photo by Tibor Bognár/age fotostock
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    Kyoto's Famous Festivals
    During Kyoto’s three great festivals, the streets are bursting with kimono-clad spectators, traditional dancers, taiko drummers, and food vendors. Gion Matsuri, originally a ritual to keep away plague and natural disaster, is celebrated all of July. During the crowning event, yamaboko (towering floats) are pulled through the streets of downtown Kyoto. The Jidai Matsuri, at the end of October, commemorates Kyoto’s 1,200-year history with a parade of participants in historical costumes marching from Kyoto Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine. For Aoi Matsuri, in May, people dressed in the brightly colored, wide-sleeved kimonos of the Heian era parade to the Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines for purification rituals, dances, and horse races.
    Photo by Raga Jose Fuste/age fotostock
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    The Art of the Geisha
    The geisha in Kyoto, known as geiko, are real-life representations of ancient Japanese artwork. They are eternally poised, enigmatic performers with black hair piled high, white-painted faces, and colorful kimonos. Geisha and maiko (geisha apprentices) are skilled in the art of flower arranging, tea ceremony, and traditional music and dance. Step back in time at geisha and maiko performances at Gion Hatanaka, near Yasaka Shrine, or be a geisha for the day after a maiko-henshin (geisha transformation) at Maika, in Gion. During cherry blossom season the celebrated Miyako Odori geisha dances are held at Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater. Once Old World courtesans, geisha are now artisans preserving Japanese traditions.
    Photo by Chris DeRemer
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    The Harmony of Buddhism and Shintoism
    Buddhism was officially brought to Japan in the sixth century by the Chinese. Despite Shintoism’s place as the primary religion of Japan, the influence of Buddhism quickly expanded throughout the country. Kyoto’s Nanzen-ji temple is home to one of the Rinzai school branches of Zen and the temple’s Leaping Tiger Garden is an example of a classic Zen garden. Chion-in temple is the headquarters of the Jodo sect of Buddhism and is a popular pilgrimage temple in Kyoto. While shrines are the religious structure of Shintoism and temples are the monuments of Buddhism, much of the religious art and architecture overlaps as Shintoism and Buddhism have coexisted and collaborated for centuries throughout Japan.
    Photo by Steve Vidler/age fotostock
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    Neighborhoods of Old Kyoto
    Step out of the modern world and into old Japan in Kyoto’s historic neighborhoods. Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka are narrow stone walkways near Kiyomizu-dera temple. They pass through traditional neighborhoods complete with old, clay-roofed houses, centuries-old shops, and restaurants. The Gion district has many striking streets and Hanami-koji is one of the most popular. South of Shijo-dori, Hanami-koji is lined with Edo-era restaurants, teahouses, and okiya (geisha houses). Gion’s Shirakawa area is ideal for an evening stroll; lanterns reflect in the Shirakawa canal and traditional eateries, ryokan inns, and teahouses are plentiful.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Arashiyama District
    The Arashiyama district combines the best of nature and architecture, with the Kitasaga Bamboo Grove and tranquil temples and villas. Originally the home of Emperor Go-Daigo, Tenryu-ji temple’s sprawling Zen gardens and small offshoot paths beckon visitors to sit and rest. Outside the north gate of Tenryu-ji begins Arashiyama’s most famous sight, the Kitasaga Bamboo Grove, which shelters visitors in a tunnel of towering green stalks. Walk ten minutes through the bamboo forest and enter the Okochi Sanso villa; the villa, gardens, and teahouse have serene views of Kyoto below. After a stroll through the bamboo, take a rowboat along the lower Hozu River. For dinner, reserve a table at Shoraian, an exquisite restaurant that specializes in tofu.
    Photo by Wick Sakit